I am not foolish enough to make a definitive list of the ten best albums from the decade which just concluded. I simply haven't heard enough titles to boast with any degree of confidence that I truly know everything that has been released over the past ten years.
I do know, however, what has caught my ear. So, that seems like a good place to start. You may find the following list vanilla, boring even. Not edgy enough, not indie enough. They may seem like safe, mainstream picks. There were plenty of other albums I enjoyed and were worthy of merit - John Legend's Get Lifted, Grant Lee Phillip's Immobilize, Tift Merritt's Tambourine to name a few, but these ten sort of jumped out at me quickly. (As opposed to jumping out at me methodically and sluggishly?)
Rockin' The Suburbs - Ben Folds: This is truly an album that has no weak songs, no songs you skip over on the CD player. It's funny and poignant, and aside from the title track, atypically mature for Folds. It's one of the most melodic albums you could own, and the characters in these songs are richly drawn. Still Fighting It is a wonderful father-son song, Fired is a manifesto for anyone who has been downsized, Fred Jones Part 2 is painfully sad, and you'd have to look pretty hard to find a kinder love song than The Luckiest.
Maroon - Barenaked Ladies: This is one of those albums that define the artist. They had fine albums before Maroon but none have come close since this 2000 release. It perfectly melded humor, irony, and sincerity. Both maturity and childishness shared equally, and it all worked. It is not smarmy, but then again this has never been a pretentious band. It's al good: from the country stomp of Go Home to the excellent single Pinch Me to the short story-like tale of workplace romance of Conventioneers ,
Halcyon Days - Bruce Hornsby: Hornsby had always been a competent songwriter, but this record may find him at his lyrical peak. One listen to Hooray For Tom and Heir Gordon may convince you of that. However, it's ultimately his piano and melodies that make the album so good. Up tempo songs like Gonna Be Some Changes Made and Circus on the Moon sound both quintessential Hornsby yet somehow completely fresh and new. The standout tracks are those he has vocal help with: Dreamland (Elton John) and Halcyon Days (Sting).
Seal IV - Seal: While some may now deem Seal as simply Mr. Klum who sings covers and performs at ice dancing shows, his fourth solo album found him re-united with venerable producer Trevor Horn, and it includes some of the artist's best work. Dance friendly songs like Get it Together and Waiting For You hold up with the slower material like Touch and The Loneliest Star. The centerpiece is Love's Divine, which uses a lush soundscape to help create a sense of drama and emotional power.
As Is Now - Paul Weller: As Is Now came a year after the covers LP Studio 150 and remains arguably Weller's best solo album. It simply sounds better than his solo releases prior to the mid-2000s. The string arrangements on 2000's Heliocentric were wonderful, but certain tracks retained that plodding, hushed production that appeared on his other solo records. Those albums were excellent, but they often just didn't cut it sonically. For the first time on a solo record, there are songs here that would have been at home on Jam (Come On/Let's Go and From the Floorboards Up) and Style Council (Bring Back the Funk and The Pebble and the Boy) records.
How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb - U2: I have liked U2 since I got the newly released War for my 13th birthday, but I am not one to inflate their accolades, either. For instance, No Line on the Horizon was not a 5-star album no matter what Rolling Stone says. Atomic Bomb and its predecessor All That You Can't Leave behind could possibly be the best back-to-back albums in the band's catalog. One album that has songs like Miracle Drug, Sometimes You Can't Make it On Your Own, A Man And a Woman, and Original of the Species deserves special merit. And Bono's wail in the line "Three to a bed, Sister Ann she said, dignity passes by" from Crumbs From Your Table, is my favorite Bono moment ever ... yes even better than Bad.
Under The Black Light - Rilo Kiley: Before this album, I was never overly fond of Rilo Kiley's music. There was something I liked about it, but there was also something about it that didn't grab me. And then they released Under The Black Light. And it grabbed me immediately. The guitars on this record sound great proving that obligatory guitar solos are not necessary. Jenny Lewis's lyrics are funny, and the record has immediately memorable cuts like Silver Lining, Breakin' Up and Close Call. It even has a very Fleetwood Mac-like tune in Dreamworld.
The Houston Kid - Rodney Crowell: The people who inhabit these songs are unforgettable. And we're not talking boring singer-songwriter stuff that plods along without melody. Instead, Crowell employs appropriate instrumentation and sincere vocals especially in touching songs like I Wish It Would Rain and Wandering Boy, a story told by a man whose twin brother is dying of AIDS. Not exactly lightweight material. The closer I Know Love is All I Need is arguably the most beautiful song Crowell (or anyone) has ever written. Oh, and on I Walk The Line (Revisited) he captures one of his former father-in-law Johnny Cash's last strong vocal efforts.
Everyone is Here - The Finn Brothers: Not sure New Zealand's most famous siblings could have done this record when they were younger. It's one of those meticulously performed records that boasts a maturity and musical comfort, a record that seems lovingly put together, songs sewn more like a tapestry than songs written on the way to the recording studio. Disembodied Voices is something anyone with a sibling can relate to, and Won't Give In is one of the best opening songs you're going to find on any album. Nothing Wrong with You and Edible Flowers are nothing short of stunning, coated with great string sections, but at their core, like the rest of the album, are simply great songs.
The Rising - Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: Perhaps the album that had the most significant cultural importance of the decade, The Rising, on a pure musical level, was a triumph because of the E Street Band's return to the studio, in what would be a trio of band albums released since 2002. Take away all 9/11 references, and the record holds up, but add that knowledge to Into the Fire, the title track, and Nothing Man, and the songs are even more chilling. The irony is that the record is not a downer. See Waitin' On a Sunny Day. Like most Springsteen music, it is about hopes, redemption, and salvation. I'll never forget holding my newborn son watching Springsteen perform My City of Ruins in the Tribute to Heroes telethon. By the next summer, the rest of The Rising was created.